Amedeo Modigliani: The Memorable 1984 Hoax

The Art of the Prank

During the 1984 summer, for the centenary of the birth of Amedeo Modigliani (12 July 1884), the Progressive Museum of Modern Art of Livorno decided to set up an exhibition in honour to him. The purpose of this exhibition was to highlight the brief and not well documented career of Modigliani's sculptor.
The care of the project was entrusted to the conservator of the local civic museum, Vera Durbé, with the collaboration of her brother Dario, superintendent of the Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. To increase the successful of the exhibition, initially a bit modest and snubbed by the critics (there was only four sculptures in display), the Durbes decided to explore the bottom of the "Medici canals", where in 1909, they said, Modigliani had thrown, discouraged by the judgment of his 'artist friends', and before to come back to Paris, some sculptures.

Villa Maria exhibition in Livorno - Modigliani the years of sculpture -1984

The Municipality of Livorno did not hesitate to fund research, hoping in this way to attracting visitors to the city. And so, in front of a huge crowd of curiosity seekers, the canals in the town center were dragged in the hopes of finding the “lost Modigliani.” A few days passed, but no trace of Modigliani's sculptures.
When the whole operation seemed to have taken the form of a waste of public money, here on the eighth day something surprising and miraculous on the city of Livorno happened: the murky waters of Livorno canal had returned something. It was a granite head carved with hard, elongated style for which Modigliani was by now famous (will say the "experts"). A few hours passed and the excavation work pulled two more stones.

For the Durbé brothers there were no doubts: the works belonged to Amedeo Modigliani. From that moment on, Livorno was literally invaded by tourists and by the media came from all over the world, with great happiness on the part of the city administration that had bet in this adventure. From America to Japan, curious, journalists and art critics crowded in front of the Museum of Villa Maria, impatient to admire the extraordinary findings.
The great professors of the Italian art critics, from Argan to Ragghianti passing through Carli and Brandi, applauded the company. The only one to claim that these three sculptures were not only fakes, but also crafted by two different hands it was Dr. Carlo Pepi, a great art collector of Crespina who in 1988 became member of the Modigliani Legal Archives at the behest of the artist daughter.

Modigliani in mostra per il centenario della nascita - Livorno 1984

In the meantime, Dario Durbé published in record time (two weeks) a book-catalog entitled "Two found stones of Amedeo Modigliani", complete with photos, scientific expertise and comments by eminent experts.

In this "very elegant catalog", we read clearly that in the Medicei canals of Livorno, they were looking for the carved heads that Modigliani, mocked by the comments of the "fellow Livorno artists", would throw in 1909, despite the fact that G. Razzaguta assured that this episode was happened 7 years later. And strangely, in the catalog it is given little importance to the publication of Razzaguta, as opposed to a book that instead is taken into account like a trustable writing on the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, entitled "The Saint of Montparnasse" written by an author, also Romanian, Peter Neagoe (1881-1960). In the catalog "two found stones of Amedeo Modigliani" a version in the Romanian language of 1977 is reported. Publication, the latter, which presents WITHOUT subtitle.

The original edition (in English version) - much more easily available - , was published in New York in 1965, then five years after the author's death and twelve years before the Romanian language version reported in the 1984 catalog.

The subtitle of this first edition in english is clear: "A NOVEL BASED ON THE LIFE OF CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI". "A novel" ... A small detail omitted in the 1984 catalog ..Very strange, right?

From the Dario Durbé words it could well understand the contagious enthusiasm during that period: "A few words to describe an episode and the emotions that would have required the space of an entire book. I felt close to Modigliani, as if that stone had the power to put us in a kind od a physical contact and cancel the seventy-five years that separated his bitter gesture from the glory of our discovery".

The triumphal day was expected for Sunday, September 2, at the exhibition place, during for the presentation of the book that was to definitively consecrate the worldwide value of discovery. But, as an old saying goes, "not all that glitters is necessarily gold". In fact, while at the Progressive Museum of Modern Art in Livorno were preparing the celebrations and the last details before the inauguration, a news from Ansa agency will rain down against this company like a bolt from the blue: three livornese students, Pietro Luridiana, Pierfrancesco Ferrucci and Michele Guarducci claimed to be the authors of the second head carved in an interview with the weekly magazine Panorama. The boys claimed it was just a prank, performed not with a poetic and philologically correct chisel, but with a simple Black & Decker drill! In confirmation of what has just been said, on the newspaper were published some photos taken by the three students in the moment they performed the work in a garden. In order to dispel the remaining doubts, the boys were also invited on television, during the early evening, to repeat their experiment live in front of over ten million viewers tuned. In a few words, their was the greatest prank of the century.

Vera Durbè: Engineer Caturegli, here are the heads of Modigliani, I feel it!





All this did not break the resistance of those who (the Durbé brothers as well as much of the art critics) still believed that the works were genuine and that the only intents of the three students were only to advertise themself. To endorse their thesis there were still the other two heads carved which the trio, for their own admissions, were not the authors. The trench behind which the supporters of the authenticity of the works were protected, collapsed after about ten days, when it became known that the idea to mocked by the haughty world of art had not jumped in the head only to Luridiana, Ferrucci and Guarducci.

Turned out, in fact, that the other two sculptures were carved by a twenty-nine port worker and promising artist: Angelo Froglia. Unlike the three students, whose aim was an innocent joke, Froglia had deeper and more complex motivations. "I was not interested in making a joke," declared to the journalists the skilled forger, "the hoax of the three students it was been a uncontrolled variable that have obstructed me a lot. My intent was to highlight how, through a process of collective persuasion, through the RAI TV, the newspapers, the chatter between people, well, all these things could influence the convictions of the people. I am also an artist, I move in the art channels, I wanted to arouse a debate on the art world. Mine was a conceptual operation, in a way, it was also a work of art, like that of Christo that packs the monuments, but I had no polemical intent against the administration, nor against the city, nor against art critics as individuals. I just wanted to let people know how in the art world, the effect of mass media and so-called experts can lead to take huge crabs (blunders)".
Not only the "Modigliani experts" took a "crab" in that affair, but also the experts appointed by the Superintendence of Pisa who performing many scientific expertise on the found sculptures. Angelo, in fact, had smeared the back of a sculpture with some of tar (for road pavement), chemical compound logically inexistent at the time of Modigliani, among other things, we are talking about of a floating element!

The authors of the 1984 hoax together with Carlo Pepi, director of Amedeo Modigliani's Birthplace house at the time

In effect, the so-called experts remained silent, unable to react and totally embarrassed.
The whole world, after having focused the cameras and the interest on the Tuscan town in which the miracle of a long-awaited and desired find had taken place, knew then of the Livorno hoax. The whole story benefited, and not a little, to the famous brand of Black & Decker electric drills, which set its advertising campaign on the extraordinary potential of its product. As for the rest, the story ended with the tears of Vera Durbé and the amused smile of Italian public opinion.

 The 1984 Hoax - The assessor Claudio Frontera reply to Carlo Pepi's charges
 The 1984 Hoax - Saturday, July 14, 1984: the dredging begins in search of the Modigliani heads
Three fake Amedeo Modigliani head sculptures

The three fake Modigliani heads

The 1984 Hoax led to a colossal repercussions in the art world also because for the most important Italian art critics were covered with ridicule for having claimed the works were authentics, even after the confession of the students, who were convinced that their head carved (obtained in some hours of work), would have been immediately recognized as fake, and they had never thought to trigger an international case. And on top of that, during the "miraculous fishing", Jeanne Modigliani, daughter of the artist, was found dead (in anomalous circumstances) in her Parisian home, exactly while she was ready to come to Livorno for declare fake the TWO sculptures (the two crafted by Angelo Froglia), on the existence of which she had been informed by an anonymous letter.

The last letter of Jeanne Modigliani sent to Carlo Pepi dated on 26/07/1984

The last letter of Jeanne Modigliani sent to Carlo Pepi dated on 26/07/1984

In the 1984 hoax, fell very illustrious names in the world of art such as Jean Leymarie, Cesare Brandi, Enzo Carli, Giulio Carlo Argan and Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, together with other art historians such as Luciano Berti, Emilio Tolaini and the sculptor Pietro Cascella.
The boys we are talking about are called Pietro Luridiana, Pierfrancesco Ferrucci, Michele Ghelarducci and the fourth their friend Michele Genovesi who took the responsibility of going to a lawyer and handing over the evidence to the authorities. Federico Zeri, who honestly claimed to have been warned by a phone call (a female voice) that had pre-announced him the discovery of TWO fake heads that would have to re-emerge from the waters of the Fossi, wrote an article for 'La Stampa' in which he judged the heads in this way. "Genuine or fake, the three stones are pieces of low level, so poors that they do not even hold the epithets of qualifying judgment, if authentic they represent, so to speak, the prehistory of Modigliani, which did well to throw off. But here born the considerations that arouses the story. The first is the arrogance with which the contemporary art critic imposes to the public everything that they considers valid and noteworthy".

Later, in 1993, Angelo Froglia decided to speak, revealing new details and making names he had not mentioned in 1984 when declared to had acted alone. Thanks to these new revelations, and to the law suit of Giuseppe Saracino and Carlo Pepi against Vera Durbé who through the newspapers she kept saying that the sculptures "fished" were authentic, the case was reopened by the magistrature who started an investigation against the former assessors and employees of the Municipality of Livorno.

The case was closed for prescription limits, as often happens in Italy..

It was during the Villa Maria exhibition that Piero Carboni understood that the sculptures in his possession, could possibly have been carved by Amedeo Modigliani.
But this is another story ..

Maurizio Bellandi